The contemporary communication tools known collectively as the media affect modern life in countless different ways. The media once comprised mainly newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV; today, it also includes social media, podcasts, streaming networks, blogs, and countless other online outlets.
The media is not only where people learn and consume information, but also increasingly a source of social connection—authentic and otherwise. Because of its ever-expanding reach, its effects on individuals and societies are the subject of much psychological research. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, for example, have rapidly changed the way we meet and communicate with others and form perceptions of ourselves. Because social media represents such a vast departure from previous ways of connecting and relating—and because its rise has corresponded with troubling trends in mental health—some experts have wondered if social media affects our well-being in new or potentially harmful ways. So far, however, research is inconclusive. Similarly, an increased focus on celebrities’ lives—a focus that predates social media but is exacerbated by it—has led some experts to posit that excessive interest in the rich and famous could have negative effects on mental health.
And mental health itself is influenced by—and an influence on—media. How psychiatric disorders are depicted in the media is thought to play a significant role in how individuals with those disorders are treated in society. Growing acceptance of mental health challenges in recent years has fueled changes in how mental illness is portrayed in the media—and vice versa.
For many people in the developed world, a large part of their social life takes place not in their immediate environments, but in the virtual worlds of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.
While social media has been a vital link for many who live far from sources of support like friends and family, psychologists have begun to express concern about research suggesting that rather than increasing connection, social media may, in fact, be making many people lonelier, less secure, and more isolated than before. Some psychologists have concluded social media use may be linked to increased rates of depression and suicide as well, though other researchers have countered such claims. Rigorously conducted studies tend to conclude that the overall impact of social media on mental health is minimal.
Social media has also come under fire for its role in increasing political polarization and for its willing or unwilling abetment of the spread of “fake news” around the world. But whatever the pros and cons of social media, most agree that it’s unlikely to go away any time soon.
Alarming rises in anxiety and depression among younger generations, many of whom spend much of their time on smartphones and social media, have led some experts to posit that social media is directly responsible for declining youth mental health. But sweeping claims that tech is hurting teens’ mental health may be based on shaky evidence. One large and rigorous study, for example, found that digital technology did have a slightly negative relationship with teens’ mental health—but so did eating potatoes and wearing glasses. While more work needs to be done, worries that new technology is universally harmful are not supported by evidence.
Increased social media use has been associated with lower self-esteem in some studies. However, it’s unclear whether this relationship is causal. It could be that prolonged social media use leads to a decrease in self-esteem, but it may also be that people with low self-esteem are more likely to spend large amounts of time on social media.
Many people are not perfectly honest on social media. But while some people—such as those who create and spread fake news—may be deliberately deceiving others, many forms of online dishonesty (such as editing photos or concealing negative life events) may instead reflect an attempt to present an idealized version of one’s life. For this reason, many experts advise taking what’s seen on social media with a grain of salt.
When it comes to mental health, social media’s effects are often cast in a solely negative light. But social media can be beneficial for users’ mental health—by providing a community for suicide attempt survivors, for example, or allowing for open, honest conversations about mental illness and self-care. Many people find that managing their time on social media and tailoring their feeds to their interests and needs can help them reap the benefits of life online while mitigating its potential pitfalls.
In an increasingly plugged-in society, many wish to find ways to rein in their media use—especially social media—but find that it can be difficult. Strategies known collectively as "media literacy" or "digital literacy" can help. Ideally, a "literate" user consumes information judiciously, takes breaks when needed, employs social networking tools to enhance their goals and complement their personality, and seeks in-person support when faced with feelings of jealousy or loneliness.
How society views mental health and mental illness is in many ways shaped by mass media. But while some TV shows, news reports, and other kinds of media present balanced, accurate depictions of psychological challenges, experts warn that many are rife with inaccuracies, spreading misinformation and potentially contributing to widespread social stigma.
But while misleading information about mental illness continues to appear in popular media, in recent years, more open conversations about mental health—especially on social media platforms—have led to more nuanced and arguably more accurate portrayals. Many believe that honest discussions of the challenges and symptoms that characterize mental illness may help lessen societal stigma, especially if paired with information that humanizes individuals and families who live with psychiatric disorders.
Some media portrayals make certain mental illnesses seem much less debilitating than they truly are or paint those with mental illnesses as dramatic or attention-seeking, which may discourage people from seeking help in real life. Other mental health problems are presented as frightening or dangerous. For instance, mental illnesses more broadly are often blamed for acts of violence, especially mass shootings, whether or not there was evidence beforehand that any were present. Experts argue that this narrative demonizes individuals with mental illness and ignores that the mentally ill are at greater risk of being the victims of crimes than the general population.
Experts have long warned that irresponsible coverage of suicide in the media could trigger copycat suicides in already vulnerable populations. Responsible coverage of suicide entails withholding unnecessary, sensationalized details about the death (such as the method of suicide or contents of a suicide note); avoiding language that criminalizes or stigmatizes suicide; and including information about suicide prevention resources.
To learn more about how the media can better cover suicide, visit the Suicide Center
Media portrayals of schizophrenia are often rife with myths and misinformation. Some, for example, suggest that those with schizophrenia have multiple personalities; this is not the case. Similarly, individuals with schizophrenia are often painted as dangerous; one study, for example, examined 42 fictional characters with schizophrenia and determined that 83 percent of them engaged in violent behavior. In reality, the vast majority of individuals with schizophrenia are nonviolent.
OCD has been inaccurately portrayed in some works of fiction as simply an obsession with cleanliness or an irritating personality quirk; in at least one case (the TV show "Monk") it was treated, in a part, as a strength. But in reality, the condition can be debilitating for those who live with it and extends far beyond an obsession with germs and attention to detail.
In recent years, especially, creators of fictional media have made significant efforts to portray mental illnesses accurately and spark empathetic conversations about mental health more generally. Some television shows and movies that have been praised for their authentic portrayals include "This Is Us," "BoJack Horseman," "Homeland," "Jessica Jones," "Never Have I Ever," and "Inside Out."
Psychopaths are often portrayed in the media as criminal masterminds or even murderers. Some experts, however, argue that presenting them solely as ruthless killers is not an accurate portrayal of psychopathy and may unfairly stigmatize those with high levels of the trait. While the condition may involve criminal and antisocial behavior, such experts note, it is not limited to that, and many people high in psychopathic traits never engage in violence. Other experts caution, however, that high levels of psychopathy are a robust predictor of violent or criminal behavior. And while not all psychopaths are serial killers, some prominent serial killers were thought to have antisocial personality disorder, which is closely related to psychopathy.
Even those who don’t closely follow celebrity gossip usually can’t help but be a little enamored by the lives of actors, athletes, and even Instagram influencers. Though some devotees genuinely find celebrity lives interesting, many people are drawn to the rich and famous because they themselves crave wealth and notoriety.
Vicariously observing celebrity life may also be an attractive pastime because, from a distance, many famous people appear powerful, flawless, and above all, happy—which can serve as a distraction when one’s own real life is going poorly. But while many celebrities are undoubtedly satisfied with their lot in life, psychological research—and plenty of anecdotal evidence—make clear that fame and fortune don’t necessarily equate with contentment.
Some experts warn that focusing too much on celebrities can cause mental distress or decrease a follower’s satisfaction with their own life—to say nothing of the negative effects of the attention on the mental health of the rich and famous themselves.
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, often with celebrities or other public figures. The fan will typically experience feelings of affection and attachment to the celebrity—who, meanwhile, has no knowledge of the fan’s existence. Parasocial relationships have been studied since the 1950s; increasing access to celebrities’ lives and personalities via social media, however, may make them more prevalent and intense than they once were.
Parasocial relationships are common and are not automatically unhealthy. However, they can bring psychological risks. Some studies, for example, find that people who report more intense parasocial relationships also struggle more with real-life social anxiety. In rare cases, parasocial relationships may manifest as dangerous behavior such as stalking or violence.
Celebrities are successful in their field and often physically attractive to boot—making them desirable potential partners, at least in the abstract. Celebrity crushes are also a kind of “safe space”; they may offer a simulacrum of romance and intimacy, without the conflict and compromises that characterize real-life relationships. Some experts theorize that for adolescents, celebrity crushes may be a way to navigate their hopes and preferences for future romantic relationships.
Gossip—whether about known others or celebrities—primarily serves as a way for humans to bond with others and enforce group norms. Celebrity gossip may also offer a dose of schadenfreude; seeing someone whose life is seemingly glamorous struggle with the same relationship drama or financial troubles that plague “normal” people can be psychologically comforting.
Paying attention to celebrities, and even developing a fondness for some of them, is relatively common. But when interest in celebrities dominates a person’s life, damages or replaces real-life relationships, or leads to alarming behavior, it is no longer psychologically beneficial. Some researchers have coined the term “celebrity worship syndrome” to explore instances where celebrity obsession becomes unhealthy or dangerous.